I know I've been writing about tempo a lot, but Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, has given me a new reason to think about it. For so long, my focus has been on relaxation and softness, but really, you can't achieve those without a steady tempo.
My students are working on where energy comes from in an ecosystem. At first, they "discovered" that energy comes from what an organism eats. They slowly began to understand that plants are always first in a food chain; therefore plants provide energy for every food chain. Just this week though, they've been tasked with investigating where energy for plants comes from. They now understand that the energy in an ecosystem comes from the sun. From our science curriculum's "Simulation" For a dressage movement to be beautiful there must first be relaxation and straightness, but as in the example of where do plants get their energy, the same question can be asked of relaxation. What produces it? I've been struggling with getting Izzy to relax because he hasn't had a truly steady tempo. The Pyramid of Training illustrates this. The base of the pyramid is rhythm which is composed of energy and tempo.
It's easy to be discouraged about being at the bottom of the pyramid again, but even the world's best horses need to revisit the idea of rhythm in their daily schooling. You can't have true collection without reviewing each layer of the pyramid. Some horses can get to the top more quickly on any given day, but others may need to stop here and there when some resistance is discovered. This had been a really tough week. I had to take my boots in for a repair, my truck is in the shop, and on Wednesday, I locked the keys in the rental car. The boots and truck have required visits to places that are not on my way to the barn which meant my riding time has been shorter than normal. On Tuesday, I saddled Izzy much later than usual, so I decided to use my few minutes to work on some trail work.
Izzy gets very tense out of the arena when he's alone. No matter how many times I've ridden him around the property, each time feels like the first time. He just doesn't like being out on the trail alone. As we were circling some downed logs, I realized that the reason he couldn't relax was because I wasn't insisting on a steady tempo. I was allowing him to hurry in the walk. Yes, he was walking, but there wasn't a steady rhythm to it. He was doing a lot of quick, quick steps in an effort to rush past whatever he didn't like.
Once I became aware of what was happening, I started using some big half halts and rode him like I would for a turn on the haunches. I shortened his stride and told him that it was okay to take little baby steps. As soon as I did that, I felt him begin to relax. Instead of asking for relaxation, I asked for a steady tempo, no matter how slow it was. He likes trail rides with friends. I spent about a half an hour circling trees, wading through tall grass, and walking past the odd building or pile of rocks. Izzy never walks by those things like they're old hat, but by insisting on a slow, but steady pace, he hurried less and seemed to feel supported. It was as though by monitoring each step he took, he seemed to have more confidence in me. I suspect that by always asking him to just "relax already," I've left him feeling like he was alone on the journey.
Someday I hope he'll have confidence in himself, but until then, it seems that he needs more support from me than I've given him. #DressageOnTheTrail